Balancing pandemic and opening schools is a tough decision

Aug. 11, 2020 | G. Michael Dobbs

On Aug. 5, I spent two and a half hours watching the Chicopee School Committee meeting at which the committee was supposed to vote on a plan for the school year.

It is the exercise that every school committee in the Commonwealth must complete by Aug. 10.

In this case, the Chicopee group decided to wait until Aug. 12 – they had to ask for a waiver from state education officials – to make their final decision.

The decision is not an easy one and by the time you folks read this they will have made their decision.

The meeting in Chicopee was fraught with emotion. Several students from Chicopee Comprehensive High School told the committee they didn’t know how they could receive their technical and vocational training without being close to other students and with proper sanitized classrooms and equipment.

Parents spoke about the educational needs of their children and how to balance it with social distancing and the wearing of masks.

The head of the teachers union called for a fully remote plan as that one was the best option to keep people healthy.

Those emotions could run high at times. Comments made by one committee member caused anger and raised voices from other members of the committee.

Watching the meeting through a Facebook page I saw the anger and frustration expressed by Chicopee residents – parents and students – to what they were watching as hundreds of comments were posted.

Undoubtedly weighing over the meeting was the news of how southern states that have reopened schools and have seen what happens: a student contracts the virus and 20 students are sent home to quarantine.

Confronting every school district is the puzzle of how to educate our children and at the same time deal with COVID-19. In all districts, the school committees had been charged with developing three plans: one for remote learning, one that would mix in-class with remote and the last that would return students full-time to school.

It’s literally a life and death decision.

In Chicopee, Superintendent Lynn Clark said the remote learning the school undertook this year was not successful as 30 to 60 percent of the students participated in it. The issue at hand is remote learning, while the safest option, is not one that fits the educational needs of all students.

The implications of every school committee’s decision across the state are deep. Childcare for working parents is a huge one, as is the meal program schools offer that are vital in high poverty communities. Jobs are at stake. Would widespread remote learning trigger layoffs of non-essential people?

I would venture to say that few school committees have faced such a dire decision.

I don’t have a child in school, but I have two grandchildren who are in school locally. I worry about their safety.

There is considerable pressure to force “normal” back into existence right now. People are craving for their pre-COVID-19 lives. I’m among those. Unlike some people though, I don’t believe that simply ignoring reality is the way to accomplish that.

We have to be aware the fight against COVID-19 will not be over until people are vaccinated successfully. When that will happen is unclear. In the meantime, we all must grapple with how best to protect ourselves, while going forward with our lives.

You know it and I know it: neither objective is easy.

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